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Powerful Settings: Finding What is Unique for Your Characters…and You by Tracy March
Posted By Tracey Devlyn On July 27, 2011 @ 12:01 am In Characterization,Craft of Writing,Setting | 33 Comments
RU welcomes back the talented and funny Tracy March ! Tracy’s going to discuss ways to make your setting feel like a living, breathing entity–a conversation I’ll be following with avid interest.
The class is yours, Tracy!
Writers get excited about various elements of craft—plotting, characterization, dialogue, theme. One of my favorite elements, setting, sometimes gets relegated to the end of the list. Yet with proper attention—and emotion—setting might become something you get excited about too!
When we imagine our stories, we struggle not to repeat the same settings, the same places and surroundings that have been ‘done’ over and over again. In his book, The Breakout Novel, writing guru Donald Maass says, “The trick is not to find a fresh setting or a unique way to portray a familiar place; rather, it is to discover in your setting what is unique for your characters, if not for you.”
After reading this advice, it occurred to me that the settings I write about are better portrayed if I am emotionally connected to them. Cities or neighborhoods, homes or restaurants—I had the good fortune to personally experience many places in my stories and form emotional connections. That doesn’t mean that my characters will see those places and be influenced in the same way, yet my frame of reference and feelings allow me to understand better how my character will experience a particular setting.
In my upcoming novel, Girl Three, set in Washington, D.C., several scenes take place at the National Gallery of Art in the East Garden Court (pictured). The National Gallery of Art is one of my favorite museums, and the East Garden Court is my favorite area in the building. It is a respite from the constant buzz of the city—a peaceful atmosphere for reading and calm reflection. Definitely one of my ‘happy’ places.
Even so, I decided to stage a memorial gathering in this setting that is almost sacred to me—to fill it with some dastardly people and all sorts of tension. I also chose to show it from the point of view of a jaded ex-Secret Service agent who sees it as “a curious cross between a rotunda and a terrarium with enough marble and stone to fill a quarry.” That’s not at all the way I see it, yet I have developed a personal connection to the setting, allowing me to imagine it better from my character’s perspective.
Another way to create powerful settings is through contrast. Show the same setting through the eyes of different characters. Give your readers another point of view, another way to look at things, more imagery for the theater of their imaginations. Toward the end of Girl Three, my heroine revisits the National Gallery of Art and views it somewhat differently than the ex-Secret Service agent. “She stepped into the East Garden Court, an oasis now without all the people. The soaring glass ceiling and the massive marble columns contrasted with the delicate palm fronds and gilded cherub sculpture atop the trickling fountain.”
You can create powerful settings even if you’ve never experienced that setting yourself. It is imperative, though, to do your research. If you are writing about a place you’ve never visited, do your absolute best to make sure the locals will find your setting credible.
And remember that details matter. They give the reader an immediate sense of a place—the scent of rosemary, the feel of smooth suede under fingertips, the glimmer of light on snowflakes.
In The Breakout Novelist, Donald Maass says, “It is the combination of setting details and the emotions attached to them that, together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details. Setting also comes alive in the way that the story’s characters experience it. Either element alone is fine, but both working together deliver a sense of place without parallel.”
Setting is a wonderful delivery method for characterization and emotion. The way your characters experience a place, and the way they feel about it, tells your readers much more about them than a laundry list of attributes without a backdrop. Draw from your research, experiences and emotions to create a rich setting for your readers.
This lovely quote from Eudora Welty says it best:
“Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction, perhaps the one that gazes benignly enough from off to one side, while others, like character, plot, symbolic meaning, and so on, are doing a good deal of wing-beating about her chair, and feeling, who in my eyes carries the crown, soars highest of them all and rightly relegates place into the shade.”
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RU Crew, how do you feel about setting? Do you love getting a feel for the whole world, or do you just need a snippet? For our writers out there…how do you give your readers a vivid sense of place?
Next up…We have a special lecture schedule tomorrow with Candice Hughes, author of Small Business Rocket Fuel: Marketing Tools to Boost Revenue. Candice is going to give us the skinny on how authors can be financially successful.
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Tracy March writes about ethical dilemmas in unethical times. Formerly a pharmaceutical sales executive, Tracy draws inspiration from her experiences and encounters in the medical field and her love/hate relationship with politics.
Tracy is a member of International Thriller Writers, a contributing editor to The Big Thrill webzine, and a member of ITW Debut Authors Program Social Media Team. She is also a member of Romance Writers of America and an associate editor for Entangled Publishing.
Tracy’s debut thriller, Girl Three, set in Washington, D.C., will be released in January 2012. Girl Three placed in several contests in 2010 including First Place in Chicago-North RWA Chapter’s Fire and Ice Contest, First Place in Valley Forge RWA Chapter’s Sheila Contest, and Second Place in Orange County RWA Chapter’s Orange Rose Contest.
Tracy lives in Yorktown, Virginia, with her superhero husband who works for NASA. They recently experienced two years living in Washington, D.C, where they discovered enough drama to inspire a lifetime of stories. Visit Tracy at www.TracyMarch.com .
Article printed from Romance University: http://romanceuniversity.org
URL to article: http://romanceuniversity.org/2011/07/27/powerful-settings-finding-what-is-unique-for-your-characters-and-you-by-tracy-march/
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 Tracy March: http://www.TracyMarch.com
 How’s Your Dialogue Working for You? by Tracy March: http://romanceuniversity.org/2011/03/04/hows-your-dialogue-working-for-you-by-tracy-march/
 The Importance of Setting with Meredith Bond: http://romanceuniversity.org/2012/12/07/the-importance-of-setting-with-meredith-bond/
 Snapping Red Flags by Tracy March: http://romanceuniversity.org/2011/06/17/could-you-break-up-with-your-publisher-by-tracy-march/
 The Best Way to Edit, by Tracy Sumner: http://romanceuniversity.org/2012/03/09/the-best-way-to-edit-by-tracy-sumner/
 Ask An Editor: Dos and Don’ts of Settings: http://romanceuniversity.org/2011/01/21/ask-an-editor-dos-and-donts-of-settings/
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